And an even bigger deal when you don’t speak the language. We didn’t know Spanish when we arrived in Ecuador.
When I say that, I mean we really didn’t know it. We didn’t hear it growing up or see it on signs – there was no Spanish spoken in our area.
Shortly after we got married in 1999 we took a Spanish course for a few months, but then our daughter came along and we had a different focus. It was not until 10 years later that the plan of moving abroad and learning Spanish came up again.
“No Hablo Español” - I Don’t Speak Spanish
Our first thoughts of moving abroad were centered on English speaking areas, or at least areas where English was somewhat widely spoken. We didn’t spend much time thinking about learning a different language.
But then we found Cuenca and felt it was the spot for us. We didn’t let the language stop us.
We only knew a few basic greetings when we arrived. The term “total Spanish immersion” became our reality – and it was very challenging at first. It can still be challenging but in a different way. We now know that we are not saying things correctly. And although we can communicate, we feel discouraged at times. In other words, we know we sound like fools.
We still feel a bit isolated sometimes. It’s hard to share our personality with friends when we are always stumbling over verb conjugations. We don’t always get their jokes and it’s almost impossible to make jokes of our own when we don’t fully understand the culture or have a full grasp of the language. At times I feel sad and frustrated because of the distance between me and my Ecuadorian friends.
Communicating face-to-face can be challenging but talking on the phone is much harder. It’s interesting how much body language (and charades) play in communication when you are learning a new language!
Something that has helped me is Pimsleur Language Programs (Audible) on my iPod. With work, homeschooling our daughter, along with all the other mom-stuff it hasn’t always been easy to find time to study. So being able to listen while washing dishes has been a great way to keep up with my Spanish. In addition to Pimsleurs, we used many books to learn Spanish.
Total Immersion Learning
The language learning process has been surprising. After 3 years I understand almost everything I hear, but my speech is far behind my comprehension. Everyone I talk to that has been through total immersion says that is how it goes, but it just seems so odd to me.
We haven’t studied Spanish enough (life kind of happened) and is no doubt a large part of the reason we struggle like we do. With that in mind, there are some interesting things I’ve noticed about how a family learns a foreign language when totally immersed in it. Personality, learning styles and support come into play.
Personality And Learning Styles
If one member of the family is a little more on the shy/timid side (as I am) it can be a bit more difficult than for a more outgoing person. I hesitate to speak up, I’m much more comfortable one on one, so because of that Bryan does most of the talking. That practice has helped him become more fluent than I am. On the other side of that personality difference is pronunciation. Because I’ve taken longer to speak and I weigh my words more, my pronunciation is better (or so I’ve been told) than his. We make a great team.
Our daughter was 8 when we arrived and for the first 2 or 3 months she didn’t even attempt to say anything in Spanish, and we didn’t push her. Once she started becoming familiar with the sounds of the language and she started hanging around with some kids her own age, she was off and running. She helps us all the time now. Her Spanish is miles ahead of ours.
Learning styles come into play as well. Some people don’t learn as well from books as others. Some learn quickly by picking things up as they go along, while others need a lot of repetition and practical application. For some fluency comes easier, so one family member could be fluent with pronunciation difficulties, while the others will have good pronunciation and be struggling with fluency.
The key to success is understanding learning differences, working with them and being supportive of one another. We all have bad days when we complain about our frustration with the language but we build each other up. It’s important to feel comfortable to express discouragement and frustration freely within the family unit without the fear of being judged. This creates an encouraging atmosphere for continued learning.
It wasn’t always that way with us. When we first arrived and one of us would get discouraged with the language there was a tendency to hide discouragement - so as not to give the appearance that learning a new language was a big deal. But as time went on, we realized that bouts of discouragement were just a part of the process and that expressing frustration actually helped create an atmosphere of understanding. It’s funny how when everyone in the family realizes that everyone else in the family is having a hard time adjusting, it’s not as hard to adjust anymore.
Our family has grown a lot in our understanding of how to draw together and support one another emotionally. I am very grateful for this aspect of life here in Ecuador. I was not fully prepared for the challenges due to language barriers. I had no idea how these challenges would help shape the loving support within our family. Nor was I prepared for how it would feel to find some days so hard and others so amazing.
The Reality Of It All
It is much different to travel through an area with a basic understanding of the language, than it is to live there. It’s different again to live 6-12 months in an area with the purpose of learning a language than it is to relocate, living the culture and the language. If someone is just passing through, relationships are not really all that important. Meeting people and making friends is definitely enjoyable, but if a person knows that they will be leaving, everything is a lot lighter.
When a person relocates, the things that make a friendship bonding come into play, like helping each other through difficult times, making memories centered around cultural aspects of life and learning from one another. When a person is faced with this reality in a foreign language, their perspective changes and they find themselves struggling to make real connections.
I have often felt tears in my eyes just from being able to offer some simple words of encouragement to a Spanish speaking friend. It’s been very important for me to stay focused on the future and what I know I will be able to say and do. Although the isolation we feel is difficult at times, we have found that it has drawn our family closer together, taught us not to take things too seriously and to laugh at ourselves more often.
We are enjoying the satisfaction that comes with understanding and progressing toward communication in a foreign language. It has been difficult, but that’s often what makes the reward that much sweeter.
What has your total immersion experience been? Please share with us by commenting on this post.